Columns 2006

The death zone…my front yard

Having spent a good deal of my life in the Arctic, I think I come by my spectacular lack of gardening skills honestly.  In my 27 years in Barrow, the only thing I successfully grew in my yard was a wonderful little patch of tundra grass that seemed to be fine growing all by itself.  All I had to do each spring was look out the window and tell it how pretty it was.

Over the course of the decades, many houseplants came to live with me only to die after a very short visit.  The cause of death was anything from over watering to under watering to a power loss that dramatically dropped the temperature inside my home.  But those that did survive all the vagaries of life as my houseplants were so hardy and successful that to this day they are the only plants in my house.  They actually survived 72 hours wrapped in boxes in the bowels of Alaska Airlines’ freight terminal during the move down from the north with nary a whimper or lost leaf.

I developed one firm theory during my years of tending my plants in Barrow.  Somewhere along the line, I decided that if I feed them enough fertilizer, then they will never become root bound because they won’t have to grow big roots to survive on such a rich diet.  I realize this is not necessarily a theory that is written up in most plant and gardening books but I don’t care.  Thinking that way has saved me hours of transplanting until I am absolutely forced to because the plants are sending notes to their attorneys.

So when I realized that a lawn and garden came along with home ownership in Anchorage, I panicked.  I wasn’t sure my Arctic theory of houseplant nurturing would carry over well this far south.

Not at all to my surprise, it didn’t.  I have a yard that surrounds my house so that it needs to be tended in the front, back and all sides.  The flowers planted on the sides of my house and in the back – the part totally hidden to the general public and my neighbors – grow like pot in the Valley.  The flowers are big, happy and spread themselves all over from the sheer joy of being alive.

The front of my house can most kindly be called the death zone.  Nothing planted there lives more than a year. And during that year, its struggle to maintain any level of greenness is painful to behold.

So it came to pass that less than two weeks before the arrival of the largest contingent of my summer visitors, my front yard consisted of two bushes that would be trees if the moose hadn’t feasted so well on them; two sticks that once had the hope of being trees; and two bushes that were an unmistakably dead brown.  Oh sure, one of the bushes had a little green around the edges but it was clear that the battle was lost and pulling the plug was the only merciful thing to do.

My sister’s friends who are traveling north with her this year have a garden whose overabundance is almost embarrassing. The grapes grow so thick on their vines that the birds get drunk with delight feasting on them. Flowers and trees grow with total abandon. They bring my sister whole trees from their garden for her birthday and their yard is so thick with foliage that you can’t tell where the trees once stood.

Desperate to do anything to eliminate the dead zone, if only for the length of their visit, I dragged the blissfully blooming plants from the side of my house and replanted them where the dead sticks once stood.  My garden helper brought healthy plants from her fully blooming yard to fill in other dead spots.  I go out each day and anxiously water the new transplants, fearful that they will succumb before my visitors arrive.  I think it’s a given they will be dead by the time they leave, but I want them to be greeted with life and color when they first see Alaska.

Next year, I think I’ll give up all pretense of life on my front lawn, pave the whole thing and paint it a pretty green.  Being from Barrow, I know when nature has defeated me.